July 2022. It’s a couple of weeks after the year’s RAAM. There was a change in the tenor of Kabir’s talk. Two successful finishes later, there was now mention of competing to win.
Riders from India would fare better at Race Across America (RAAM) if they acquire familiarity with the challenges posed, become better supported and progressively hit from the front foot instead of the backfoot as they normally do, Kabir Rachure, among India’s leading ultra-cyclists and a two time-finisher of RAAM, said.
In June 2022, Kabir successfully completed RAAM for a second time (11 days, 11 hours and 25 minutes); he also placed third in his age category. He plans to return to RAAM in 2024 and when that happens, he would like to cycle faster and approach the race with a view to win. The Navi Mumbai-based cyclist explained his reasons for the changed perspective.
To begin with, he had come off the experience of 2019 – when he finished RAAM in 11 days, 22 hours and 43 minutes – resolved to attempt it again. He felt there was ample scope to improve. In 2019, he didn’t have well developed strategies for nutrition and rest. “ I didn’t follow a proper sleep pattern,’’ he said. Early on in the race, the heat of Arizona took its toll. Despite training for the event, he had found himself progressively exhausted, experiencing a hazy view of the proceedings and unable to recall in detail, sections of the 3000 mile-route, he pedaled through. Further, in a race wherein rider tackles challenges in partnership with the support crew, there were some deficiencies in the latter. “ We took it lightly. Everyone wasn’t at 100 per cent. The correct balance wasn’t there. In 2019, although we completed the race, I wasn’t satisfied with our performance,’’ Kabir said. The team was determined that their next outing at RAAM should be with the required improvements, addressed.
Once you have been a finisher at RAAM, cyclist is lifetime-qualified to participate in the race. Kabir has this privilege, courtesy 2019. His idea was to go back to RAAM in 2020 but that year the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team would have gone back in 2021 but there were too many variables in the air, ranging from vaccination to quarantine conditions; not to mention – all preparations going for a toss should infection strike just before or during the race. For cyclist from India, each attempt entails a sizable financial investment. Given such uncertainty, Kabir and his team decided not to participate. There was also another reason. Kabir wished for a decently strong field; he wanted RAAM to be an instance of competing with the best and competing with many. In 2021, with the world only beginning to emerge from the shadow of pandemic, strong line-ups were hard to come by in races. The goal therefore was, 2022.
In 2021, there was a virtual RAAM, which riders could participate in from anywhere in the world as long as they had Wi-Fi and trainers capable of hosting apps for competing digitally. Kabir didn’t take part in this. He felt, RAAM’s digital version wouldn’t be a complete substitute for the actual experience of the race. In the real world, cycling at RAAM includes challenges like mountain sections, the heat of Arizona, the weather conditions of Kansas, the punishing hours on the saddle, the sleep deprivation and the support crew actively working with rider to keep the journey going. The digital version, in comparison, featured limited sections of RAAM repeated like a loop. All of it executed from a room where support was easily accessed. “ The main challenge in virtual RAAM concerns being on a trainer – it restricts the natural variety of body movements possible in real world cycling. This lack of variety in movement, is tough on the body. It can be hard on your knees,’’ Kabir said.
For 2022 RAAM, Kabir dipped into his 2019 experience and trained differently. There was a time when he thought – like many did and continue to – that success in ultra-cycling events requires hours and hours of training piled on in the preparatory phase. With RAAM done in 2019 and an idea of what to improve had, Kabir structured his training for 2022 around quality, not quantity. “ This time around for RAAM, I trained 8-12 hours per week,’’ he said. He did the bulk of that indoors. He avoided some of the popular temptations in Indian cycling. “ I won’t say that if you do K2K (Kashmir to Kanyakumari) or the Golden Quadrilateral, you can complete RAAM. After the initial portion of K2K, the route is mostly flat. The only thing that is tough in K2K, is the traffic,’’ he said. RAAM in contrast, features varying topography and weather patterns. It doesn’t let you settle into one paradigm. “ RAAM is a different beast,’’ Kabir said.
Among the changes effected in training for 2022, the most significant one was that weekly total of 8-12 hours. “ Somewhere along the way, I have crushed the myth that you must train 25-30 hours per week,’’ he said, highlighting the importance of balancing training and recovery. However, Kabir admitted that he could shift more towards quality because he had the quantity already in place (thanks to many ultra-races and training for it, done) with one outing at RAAM to boot. For those new to ultra-cycling, he said, he would want long rides done because they help the rider know his / her body better. But the mileage must be ramped up carefully; slowly and steadily. “ I don’t want anyone hurting themselves,’’ Kabir said. In his case, years of cycling has ensured a litany of long rides done and with an idea of how his body behaves now in place, he could afford to trade quantity for quality in the run up to 2022 RAAM.
Roughly two months before RAAM, in April 2022, Kabir shifted to the high-altitude environment of Ladakh. From April 20 to May 20, he trained there. He cycled some 1200-1500 kilometres there including a dash up to Khardung La from Leh in less than three hours (two hours and 40 minutes according to him). Then, returning to Mumbai he flew out to the US on June 1 with about a fortnight left for the year’s RAAM to start. The benefits of training at altitude are well-known. Although many people believe that the rub-off effects of altitude, stay with the individual only for a few weeks, Kabir says that in his experience, right nutrition (essentially iron in one’s diet) can help prolong the benefits. The learnings from 2019 RAAM combined with a modified training regimen ensured that Kabir commenced 2022 RAAM in a strong frame of body and mind.
A notable absentee at 2022 RAAM was Christof Strasser. For years, the Austrian ultra-cyclist with multiple wins at RAAM to his credit, had been a regular participant. “ RAAM without Strasser does not feel the same,’’ Kabir said. Endurance cyclists like Christof Strasser and Marko Baloh (Kabir now has Marko’s signature preserved on his bike) have the capability to go into an attack mode compared to the defensive mindset of Indian riders. Kabir traces this attitude found overseas, to a state of being well supported and having nothing to lose. To illustrate it in simple terms, he quoted the example of Formula One. If someone participated with a car they bought with their own money, would they drive as aggressively as a Lewis Hamilton backed by Mercedes and enjoying a supply of cars from the company? When you have someone backing you and you are told to focus on your performance, you will perform better than if you were on our own, Kabir said. As luck would have it, for his 2022 RAAM attempt, two sponsors came aboard – Spiegel Bikes and Ultrahuman. He could therefore afford to imagine a bit differently. Face RAAM with a semblance of nothing-to-lose. Still the race threw up challenges.
Kabir brought with him to the US, four bikes for use in RAAM. He kept a time trial bike with aggressive geometry to cycle through Arizona. Although Arizona felt less warm than in 2019, there was no escaping the buckets of sweat the heat triggered. Kabir developed a terrible saddle-sore following which, the fast TT bike had to be given up. Any more time on it would have seriously endangered his prospects in the race. He ended up using a Spiegel San Merino for around 2700 kilometres and two models of Lapierre (including a Pulsium, which is a comfortable endurance bike) for 1600-1800 kilometres. If reworking the bicycle mix was an early challenge, then the wind in Kansas posed its own set of hardships later. A powerful headwind made cycling through Kansas difficult. At other times, crosswinds kept the bicycle constantly at a tilt and difficult to steer with one hand. It rendered periodic engagements with the support car (while still pedaling) for hydration and nutrition, tough to handle. One nasty fall and Kabir could end up retired from the race. But aside from these challenges, the race went off smoothly. He experienced little of the abject exhaustion he had felt in 2019. He finished RAAM in better time and better shape than in 2019; he also got a podium position in his age category. Upon examining the videos of others who finished ahead of him in 2022 and seeing the state they were in; Kabir feels he can push harder. He thinks he can match those performances. They are within achievable distance. In 2022 there was much energy he held in reserve. In retrospect, it was good; it helped him finish comfortably. But it would be a shame not to explore tapping that reserve. Maybe there is room to push further and discover another reserve beyond? A new perspective has taken root.
Kabir will return to RAAM next in 2024. In the immediate aftermath of 2022 RAAM, he thinks a bit of rest is in order as his body is craving for it. The purse also takes some time to recuperate. As he put it, expensive multi-day races like RAAM resemble sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane needs a lot of water and once the water in the well has been used up, it takes time for it to replenish before another season of cultivation is possible. Same holds true for RAAM, rider and money. Until the purse is replenished, aspirations must stay modest. In November 2022, he will participate in the 24 hour-time trial slated to take place in Borrego Springs, Arizona. If all goes well, he will do a six hour-time trial as well. In 2023, he plans to try Race Around Austria. And in 2024, when RAAM looms afresh on his calendar, the best weapon in his armoury may lay in this observation post-2022 RAAM: “ I feel I have unlocked myself in some way.’’ According to him, it is like having battled some monster and suffered a great deal but also gained a lot.
His sister, Sapana who oversees Kabir’s support crew is also not resting on the better performance of the team at 2022 RAAM. With Kabir now talking of winning, she is aware of what lay ahead. According to her, Kabir currently has a pool of around 12 people to pick and choose from, for each competition he goes into. They are known well to him and given the number of races they have attended with him, are aware of Kabir’s requirements. Together, they cover a spectrum of support services ranging from driving the crew car to navigation to nutrition to physiotherapy and bicycle maintenance. Some are good for short races; some for longer ones. “ This time at RAAM, we were all on the same page,’’ Sapana said. Had it not been for the wind in Kansas, the time taken to complete would have been less. Sapana knows that in ultra-cycling competitions like RAAM, wherein rider and support crew must pull together, every additional effort Kabir puts in to improve must be matched on the crew side too. “ We plan to use the same people for the rides ahead. The two years to 2024 is good enough time to improve further,’’ she said.
As regards training ground for ultra-cycling, Kabir thinks that India is a fantastic place to train given the range of topography it has, including the Himalaya. Some states and union territories have a better mix in this regard – Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Ladakh; and in terms of cities sporting such variety – Bengaluru, Pune, Nashik and Navi Mumbai. But as ever in India, in all these places there is a killjoy snapping at cycling’s heels – the explosive growth of automobile traffic.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is mostly based on a conversation with Kabir at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai in July 2022.)